It all started with a flyer taped to a lamp post. In the photo was a gray-muzzled fluff ball. The caption read: “Foster a Senior Dog!”
In those days, though I spent a lot of free time volunteering for animal shelters, I hadn’t yet turned my professional career to dogs. I desperately wanted to adopt but was stuck traveling regularly for work. The flyer was a lightbulb moment. Foster? Seniors? Short term care for old mutts who wanted nothing more than a warm bed and love? That I could do.
So began a love affair with senior dogs.
Honey Bear was my first. A nine-year old Pomeranian, she was sweet as pie. She loved the park and loved to snuggle. She was snatched up by a loving forever family within a month.
Then there was Arkie, a gentle giant of a St. Bernard with a matted coat. He spent Christmas with my family that year and entertained us by burying his Christmas gifts in secret spots under blankets and rugs.
Hedy Lamarr came next. A shepherd mix, she was a spitfire. At ten years young, Hedy could outrun any young upstart at the park.
Debbie, at ten (another Pomeranian), was a toothless grump that kept me laughing from her antics. She slept next to me at night, snuggling into the covers and snoring.
Most people shy away from the idea of adopting a dog over the age of seven. These senior citizens languish in shelters for far longer than their youthful counterparts. In city and county shelters with limited space, thousands are put down simply for the crime of being old.
Unfortunately, this “crime” is why many senior dogs become homeless in the first place: it’s not unusual for a family to “trade in” a senior dog for a younger model when health problems arise.
I don’t know if that was how Cassie ended up at rescue. What I do know is that this gorgeous, purebred Australian shepherd was both blind and deaf. Her fur was so matted when she arrived they had to completely shave her coat.
Cassie wasn’t easy: I had to carry her down the stairs and watch carefully on walks for hazards. Despite these challenges, Cassie was still a dog. She enjoyed camping and loved to lie on the porch soaking up the sun. After finding her forever home, Cassie joined two other senior Aussies and spent the rest of her days in luxury.
Many people worry that they won’t have enough time with their loved one. Healthy seniors may have as many as half-a-dozen good years ahead of them (many small dogs live past 12). It’s true, though, that others will be gone within months.
Franny seemed healthy and she was adopted within two weeks of arriving in my home for foster care. A week later, when her new adopter’s veterinarian discovered Franny was terminally ill, she was returned. Franny was now no longer a foster dog but a ‘fospice,’ a homeless hospice dog who would stay in a loving home until her death.
The next few months with Franny, a long-legged, wiry haired Airedale mix, were fantastic. She loved to chase the ball and got to the beach; we went walking there several days a week. I cooked her meals of chicken, veggies and rice. She spent evenings with me curled up with a book or watching a movie. She relished visiting friends at the local dog park and the dog-friendly neighborhood bar.
In the end, Franny’s stomach cancer caught up with her. After two days of lethargy and a refusal to eat, we went to the Vet. She died with her head on my lap.
It’s not easy saying goodbye to a dog, no matter how long they’ve been in your care. The fear of the pain of letting go is real. Not everyone has the strength to see a dog through their final days and how much time you have with a senior is not always what you expect.
When I picked up Ginny as a foster dog, this small, deaf Australian shepherd mix was skin and bones. What little hair she had was coarse and dirty. She limped. She was scared.
Watching Ginny go from a broken creature to a beautiful, funny little dog, I couldn’t stop myself—I had to adopt her. Ginny never overcame her limp (which we discovered was due to a previous injury that resulted in fused vertebrae in her spine) but she was active and playful. At ten, she seemed strong and healthy.
Ultimately, and tragically, Ginny slipped and fell down a set of stairs at a friend’s home. Exacerbating her previous spinal injury, the fall caused slipped discs that, within 48 hours, left her paralyzed. The vet gave us two options: keep her immobile on opiods for the rest of her life or put her down. I chose what I believed to be the more compassionate option and said goodbye.
Despite these heartbreaks, I continue to foster and adopt senior dogs and only senior dogs.
Adopting a Senior Dog: Myths vs. Reality
The myth that an older dog will not bond with a new family the same way as a young one is just that: a myth. Most seniors are active, playful and loving. Most seniors love to socialize. And yes, old dogs can learn new tricks. Unlike adolescent dogs in whom behavior problems tend to crop up unexpectedly (typically between 10 months and 1.5 years of age), the personality of a senior is stable. They’ve seen everything. Best of all, seniors are ideal dogs for working families and urban environments. They are typically more content with a slower lifestyle and make excellent Netflix companions and office mascots.
My current dog, Buster, a nine-year old Boxer-Great Dane mix, is all of these things and more. He loves to hike, he plays with gusto, and he never fails to greet me at the door with a toy in his mouth. When I sit down to write, he’s at my feet. But at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, when most young dogs are up and raring to go, Buster is still snuggled up on his bed deep in sleep.
Over the last few years, senior dogs have become a common subject in the media. And while some senior-centric rescue groups including Muttville Senior Dog Rescue in San Francisco and the Grey Muzzle Organization in Raleigh, North Carolina have stepped in to help, thousands are still waiting in shelters side-by-side with younger, more attractive dogs. It’s a beauty contest most seniors can’t win. Luckily, beauty is more than skin (and age) deep.
If you’re considering adopting a dog, there is, without a doubt, a senior in your local shelter waiting to be noticed. Give an old dog a chance. I promise you won’t regret it.